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When specs for servers such as the Dell PowerEdge 850 mention a max HDD size of 250GB (for SATA) is this an actual hardware limit or was it just the max size available at the time?

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Although only your vendor can advise definitively on this, in my experience, the limits relate to support. If you find larger ones that fit, and they work, good luck to you - but your drives, or indeed your whole system, may be out of support if you go that route. – MadHatter Aug 1 '13 at 7:50
btw the two nearest general limits were 137GB and 2TB – JamesRyan Aug 1 '13 at 16:49
up vote 2 down vote accepted

That was just the maximum size of SATA drive that they sold and support/ed for that particular server. Almost certainly that particular server will support 48-bit LBA allowing larger disks to be seen, though using non-supported disks carries an amount of risk and we do regularly have people come to this site asking why their data has disappeared when they were using non-supported disks (particularly on HP kit).

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With the problems you mentioned, do you know if that is to do with the disk not being supported by the hardware, or by the software? (i.e. the os/drivers) I will be using debian which is probably not officially supported anyway. – Michael Lawton Aug 1 '13 at 19:37
In HP's case it's because they use custom firmware revisions on the disks as they tend to set the error thresholds much lower than 'stock' as they're very keen on reliability. So their controllers are expecting specific firmware/timings and when they are stock disks it can sometimes cause problems. I don't know about Dell but IBM can be similar too. You're right about Debian, I have no problem with people using unsupported hardware/software combinations so long as their expectations are set at a correct level and they don't expect 'five nines' reliability. – Chopper3 Aug 1 '13 at 19:44

The spec sheet you link to just says that the largest drive shipped with that server is 250GB. I suspect nothing will stop you from fitting far bigger drives yourself but, as a comment to your question observes, don't expect any support if you fit non-Dell parts.

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